Actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson discusses playing Maigret in ITV’s acclaimed adaptions of Georges Simenon’s detective novels.
Q: What were your thoughts about the reaction to the first two Maigret films and then returning to the role?
“I know very little , unfortunately, about the viewers’ reactions because I tend not to read reviews. You just get a vibe from what people say to you in shops and things. Or what people don’t say to you. And the vibe seemed to be generally a positive one. So that’s good.
“He has come on quite a bit since the first and second film. The third film, Night At The Crossroads, is different again. Helped, I think, by the story. The story of Night At The Crossroads is richer.
“Like Poirot and many detective stories like it, you rely very much on the strength of the supporting cast and the guest cast. That was certainly what we enjoyed hugely in the previous films with David Dawson, Fiona Shaw and people like that.
“And then in this one with Kevin McNally as Inspector Louis Grandjean, Danish actress Mia Jexen as Else and German actor Tom Wlaschiha, who plays Carl Andersen. They were all absolutely excellent.
“All these things help and it doesn’t half improve your own performance when you’re acting with a very good performance from somebody else.”
Q: So you are learning more about Maigret all of the time?
“Yes, you do. And you can’t really put your finger on what you’re learning. You’re just settling into it. The old cliche is finding your feet, finding the road. Rather than meandering off into the undergrowth. It’s almost the muddiness of the character which brings the clarity.
“You don’t want a character who is just the same all the time. It’s a matter of exploring how he is in this kind of situation, how he is in that kind of situation. How is he when he’s angry? When’s he’s interested? When he’s intrigued? You’re trying to find the 360 degrees of a character.
“You can come up with a caricature in a relatively short space of time. But if you want a character, that takes longer.
“I’m very aware even of how, say, the Blackadder character developed over a period of years. I think by the end he was more interesting. Although, of course, he went through many different periods. But nevertheless it was a better focused thing after the fourth series than it was in the first series.
“Even Mr Bean – we’re doing these animated cartoon versions of Mr Bean that I do the voice and the noises for, and I’m so aware, actually, how much more developed the character is now than when we first started doing him on television 25 years ago. All characters for me are a voyage of discovery.”
Q: There is a sadness about Maigret when we meet him again. Why?
“Maigret is at the funeral of an old colleague who died, forgotten by those who once loved him. It makes him think about the lot of a police officer. The officer who died was a drinker who drank himself to death. He had separated from his wife, his whole life had collapsed and he died alone.
“Maybe that’s not unknown in this day and age but I’m sure it was a relatively common thing in Paris in 1955. It’s very sobering for Maigret. Like anyone who has the same job as the person who has died, you think, ‘Could that be me?’
“Maigret is very reassured, as he always is, by his home life. Which is rooted in tragedy. It was stated in the first film how he and his wife lost a child in infancy. So they are childless but they are very close and rely very much on each other.
“He finds his home life a great comfort and a very important balance to his professional life, which in those days was pretty challenging and rough. Dealing with the underworld of 1955 in Paris only 10 years after the end of the war, a city full of guns, full of corruption, suspicion and distrust. Who collaborated with the Nazis and who didn’t?
“All of that was still rumbling on in 1955. So it’s a rather dark underbelly of the city. At the same time, the other side of mid-50s’ Paris was in American eyes the glamorous romance capital of the world. To the outside world there was that lovely gloss to it. But Maigret is dealing with the polar opposite end of it.”
Q: How does Maigret react to Else’s (Mia Jexen) sensuality?
“Else has influenced, not always to the good, an awful lot of men. She is clearly someone who is a damaged but attractive individual. Else is very glamorous and seductive, using her femininity to her own ends. There is no doubt Maigret feels himself being drawn to her. It’s an interesting dilemma for him because we haven’t seen that before. The degree to which, in the end, Maigret is human. He’s human and he’s male.”
Q: How would you describe the feel of Night At The Crossroads?
“The location is very interesting. The crossroads in the middle of nowhere, through which fruit trucks pass going into the markets of Paris in the early morning. And they stop at this isolated crossroads on the way. At the crossroads there are just three dwellings – the garage, the Michonnet house and then the Andersen house.
“It’s quite a way out of Maigret’s patch because it’s not Paris. It’s a good 20 or 30 miles outside town. But he decides to take it on because the local cop Grandjean, played by Kevin McNally, is an old colleague and Maigret decides to take an interest. It’s a very complex web of villainy all rooted in this crossroads.”
Q: Madame Maigret (Lucy Cohu) tells her husband she fears he may one day not return from work. It’s sometimes forgotten that families of police officers still feel that to this very day?
“Maigret’s wife brings it home. People often don’t think about the police in that way. If someone tells you they’re going to be a soldier, you think, ‘Oh my God, you could die.’ Whereas people tend not to think that about police officers. Which is not the case.
“Police officers are on the front line. Fewer of them may be killed than soldiers. But there is a ‘war’ going on with which the police are involved every day of their lives. I think it is something you forget. It’s easy to remember with soldiers and it’s easy to forget with police officers.”
Q: Can you recall a time in your career when you reached a crossroads and had to make a big decision about which direction to go in?
“When I was first starting out I did a half hour pilot for ITV, for London Weekend Television, of my own, which was me playing three different characters. It was what you might call ‘The Rowan Atkinson Show.’ I had just done that when I was offered a part in the sketch show Not The Nine O’Clock News that was happening at the BBC. What was then referred to as ‘the other side’.
“I remember having to make a decision. Whether to do my own show at the very tender age of 24 or whether to go in with a team of people, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and everyone with the BBC. I spoke to John Howard Davies, the Head of Comedy for the BBC at the time, who became a good friend and actually produced the first six Mr Bean episodes when we eventually did them for ITV. ‘Follow your instinct,’ was his only advice.
“And my instinct was to play safe and go with the team of people. Which is what I did. So that was definitely a crossroads moment. Left or right. I’m not sure which is left and which is right between BBC and ITV. But whichever it was I went for the BBC. But then, ironically of course, many years later Mr Bean was an ITV product and so is Maigret.”
Q: Are there any unexpected side roads you have explored in terms of an interest or hobby?
“Cars have always been my thing. Motor cars and motor racing are my hobbies and interest and they remain so to this day. I’m glad I’ve always had that as an interest because it is pleasingly distracting, let’s say, and quite different to the business we call show.
“It is quite a different mental and physical activity. And, of course, quite often I’ve been able to incorporate the interest in shows. Mr Bean’s car antics and what have you. And Johnny English car antics.
“But generally speaking I’m pleased I have had a hobby. A surprising number of people, actually, within my acquaintance don’t have hobbies. I always find that odd. Or at least I’m not aware of them. Their job, their existence is their hobby. And I’m pleased I’ve always had something to take me far away from my job.”
Q: You have also filmed Maigret in Montmartre. Can you give us a glimpse into that story?
“All of the stories have been expanded somewhat for the screen by Stewart Harcourt. Because Maigret novels are rather slim volumes, literally and figuratively.
“Maigret In Montmartre revolves around a woman again. Which was very much Georges Simenon’s infatuation.
“I suspect he was depicting a fantasy woman of his own in this story. That’s my feeling. She has a very startling effect on a wide range of men.
“And it’s got her into a lot of trouble. It all feeds into the great seediness of the time and of the place. And of this nightclub in particular, Le Picratt.”
Q: Are you keen to make more Maigret films?
“The proof of the pudding is in the eating. All I would ask is that people watch them and make their own mind up.
“I think they’ve got a lot of appealing qualities. And I like the world we’ve depicted.
“Virtually every shot in every location has an atmosphere which I think is unique.
“It’s enabled us to present a world that I hope people want to be part of. And people want to see.”